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By: Dayle Hayes, MS, RD   Date: 3/22/12

I was profoundly affected by my recent school breakfast visit to Billings (Montana) Senior High. Much of my work is fairly abstract – presentations about marketing healthy school meals, webinars about implementing new meal patterns, and interviews about nutrients that kids are missing in the foods they eat. My visit to Billings Senior High for breakfast was more important and straightforward – it was simply about feeding hungry teenagers.
The food was great. While it exceeded current USDA guidelines, the menu might have disappointed those vociferous school meal critics who seek perfection. Some of the fruit was canned (peaches and pineapple in juice); there were corn dogs (whole grain breading, low-fat, turkey, but still corn dogs); and there were ready-to-eat cereals rather than plain oatmeal.
There was also fresh fruit (bananas, apples and oranges), yogurt parfaits, and an amazing made-to-order burrito bar with Trevino’s tortillas, plus eggs, spinach, jalapenos, onions, sausage crumbles and salsa. While not exactly organic-free-range-nutrition-perfection, it was wholesome, healthy, and prepared by “lunch ladies” who greeted kids by name with a smile and a “welcome to our café” attitude.
In the bright sunny Senior High cafeteria, I was especially struck by three things:

First, the atmosphere was like the pleasant bustle of a coffee shop with lots of conversation, but no inappropriate interactions. Karl Rude, the school resource officer came in to talk with kids and have breakfast himself – not to “patrol” or enforce proper behavior. He said to me, “It’s like this every morning.”

There were all kinds of kids – with cowboy hats, updo hairstyles, multiple piercings and athletic uniforms – all there to do one thing: eat breakfast. Best of all, there were many girls with protein, fruit, and milk on their plates. With all the news about girls struggling with eating disorders, it’s heartening to see young women enjoying breakfast.

When I asked several teens what they liked best about school breakfast, they looked a little surprised, because it was obvious to them. “I eat here almost every day because it’s free and it’s good,” one kid said. Another observed, “Some kids don’t have money to eat and when I eat here, I don’t have to listen to my stomach growl all morning.”

On USDA’s “What’s on Your Plate” Day earlier this month, these students needed a balanced breakfast in a safe and welcoming place – they got that and much more. Next time you are tempted to pick apart a school menu, go to your local high school and take a look at things from a hungry teen’s point-of-view. Find out what changes the program has already made and what personnel would like to do if they had more support. Compare what the kids can enjoy in a school breakfast to the alternative -- chips, pop, and candy from the corner store.
Better yet, get engaged with the school and the kids. Explore what you could do to help promote smart choices for successful athletes or support a school food pantry for the students in need, like the one just established at Billings Senior High. Everyone – except hungry teenagers – is surprised by how many students are using it.




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